Putin is masterfully exploiting the door back into the Mideast opened for him by the disintegration of the U.S. position over the last generation. With the leader stumbling, the humiliated opponent is back…unopposed. Putin now has the opportunity to change Mideast diplomacy and political realities, but can he avoid the mistakes made by others looking for adventure in the region?
Washington’s evident inability to extinguish the political fires raging across the Mideast this century opened the door to Moscow’s return to the region. Washington’s behavior this century meant that Moscow could essentially get away with doing whatever it wanted. Putin, in a few short weeks, took full advantage of this double opportunity, and now Russian firemen are busy pouring gasoline in all directions. That approach to putting out Mideast fires has of course been tried before, but while the world waits to see if Putin can use the old, failed method with more success, he is nevertheless changing the overall political context in significant ways with little political harm to himself.
Looking very much the Texas cowboy, he rode in to save the West from ISIS and had a military footprint solidly on the ground before the West realized he was really aiming at people the West kinda liked. He talked nice to Israel while supporting an Iranian military surge into Syria. He exploited Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet to cover a major upgrade to his missile defense system and a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign against Turkmens too close to his Syrian military base(s). Suddenly, for the moment at least, Russia appears to be the only major actor in the region that has a plan and can implement it. Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are all glancing delicately at the new suitor.
For Putin domestically, acting angry at Turkey beats riding his horse bareback (Putin, not the horse), but Putin’s show of anger is just what he needed to cover his military move into Syria. Who can criticize Putin for protecting his pilots? By the time the tiff over the killed pilot is resolved, Russia will be solidly established on multiple military bases in Syria. Given the lack of restraint toward civilians being shown by any states involved in current Mideast wars, Putin will be free to defend those bases pretty much as he chooses: civilized rules of warfare simply no longer exist in the region: murdering hospital workers and their patients, white phosphorous, drone attacks, barrel bombs, etc. So, the Russian bases seem likely to stand firm for some time, a new rock around which the messy civil war and foreign factional conflicts will swirl.
How will Russia’s re-entry to the Mideast alter events? Putin seems pretty free to select whatever allies he wants in the region: he can protect the next Syrian regime against Israel; he can pull Saudi Arabia away from the U.S.; he can move quite a distance toward leading the “Iranian” bloc; he can support an independent Kurdistan; he can pretend not to see Israeli aggression against Lebanon or he can announce that he considers Lebanon henceforth protected by his newly installed S-400 umbrella. It will be fascinating to see which way he moves, how a new U.S. administration will respond to Putin’s tactical skill; and whether or not Putin manages to avoid getting caught in the Salafi jihadi trap of over-committing massive military force that only plays into the hands of extremists by alienating civilians. Putin’s adoring masses in mother Russia may turn a little sour if he pours Three Trillion Dollars into the sands of the Mideast.
After a determined battlefield show of support for Assad that gave Assad some gain on the ground, Moscow has now called for inclusion of Syrian Kurds in the solution. The PYD’s diplomatic initiative toward Russia last month appears to be bearing fruit. This statement pays Erdogan back one more time for shooting down the Russian jet but also challenges the U.S. for the status of Kurdish patron while making Russia look somewhat more reasonable as an advocate of Syrian peace. In short, it was a good tactical move.
Putin had in fact already paid Erdogan back by escalating attacks on Turkey’s Syrian Turkmen clients–the group being targeted by the Russian bomber in the first place. Pepe Escobar summarizes:
These Turkmen supplied by Ankara’s “humanitarian” convoys got American TOW-2As for their role in preserving prime weaponizing/ smuggling routes. Their advisers, predictably, are Xe/Academi types, formerly Blackwater. Russia happened to identify the whole scam and started bombing the Turkmen. Thus the downing of the Su-24.
Turkish professor and Mideast specialist Abbas Vali reacted to the Russian plane shoot-down as follows:
The PYD has been rejoicing over Russia’s intervention in Syria. A Russian-PYD alliance is inevitable. Russian bombardments against radical Islamic groups in the field will have a dramatic impact on the PYD’s operations. (…) Russian operations will be greatly strengthening the PYD in the field.
Hence, the new bow to the Syrian Kurds represents a second payback, leaving Erdogan to lick his wounds and take care of a wave of Turkmen refugees. Whether or not a Russian-Kurdish alliance will occur is less clear, for the pro-Assad Russian air war does not seem to be discriminating between Turkmen and Kurds, civilians of both groups now evidently being slaughtered en masse.
Putin’s Mideast move changes the Mideast political system in at least two fundamental ways. First, Washington can no longer do whatever it wants with impunity. One can only hope that this will make Washington more cautious, more logical, more flexible, more thoughtful. One can hope that this will enable Washington to free itself from self-defeating reliance on a wide range of Jewish and Sunni false friends and to consider ways of projecting power and influencing the world less extreme than brute military force. To that extent, competing with the Russian bear may enable the American eagle to fly more gracefully.
Putin’s second impact on the Mideast political system is to institutionalize the Sunni-Shi’i balance made possible by Obama’s cautious progress toward settling the nuclear issue with Iran. Saudi Arabia no longer owns the Muslim world, and neither Riyadh nor Tel Aviv can currently aspire to launching an attack on an Iran that both sits at international diplomatic tables and has great power backing. The long rampage of Salafi jihad may now ironically be checked by the country that the Salafis first defeated. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel now have this in common: a significant measure of national security in return for losing their blank checks: none need fear outright attack, none has the political option of launching such an attack. Short-sighted, zero-sum policies to beggar thy neighbor will continue for sure, unfortunately for all except extremist groups including sectarian proxy wars, but at least nuclear war seems finally to be off the table, and all the regional players will henceforth need to think one more time before setting off on some new adventure.
Putin is spreading chaos tactically but, in contradiction, is simultaneously giving the region a degree of strategic balance. Since the tactical and the strategic flow are moving in opposite directions, the outcome is unpredictable, but if Putin has the ability to follow his military harshness with diplomatic conciliation–which he can now certainly afford to do since he has succeeded in re-establishing Russia’s regional presence, then he just may make the Mideast a better place. If he does, will Washington have the maturity to thank him for pulling its chestnuts out of the fire?